The skeleton of a huge Roman who was stabbed to death could be a clue in the search for York’s Roman amphitheatre. Experts have revealed the skeleton found beneath the Yorkshire Museum during its refurbishment is that of a powerful, athletic male who was stabbed at least six times in a fatal attack, including a powerful sword blow to the back of the head.
The location where he was found has long been thought to be one of the prime locations for a Roman amphitheatre, which would most certainly have been built when York was the Roman capital of the north. It is possible that the Roman found could be a disgraced or defeated gladiator who was literally thrown out with the rubbish after his brutal death.
Andrew Morrison, head curator of the Yorkshire Museum, said: “This was a huge man for the Roman period who died a violent and bloody death. The physical evidence reveals he was a swordsman and that his body was literally dumped with the rubbish – there was no hint that he had been buried in a ceremonial way.”
Mr Morrison added, “But what is really interesting to us is that he was found in this area, which is not associated with Roman burials and that many believe could be where York’s amphitheatre was located. It is far from certain but it could well be the case that this man was a disgraced gladiator who was brutally killed and then left to rot.”
The skeleton was found in January by builders carrying out work on the museum, as part of its £2 million refurbishment. It was found only 30cm beneath the museum’s foundations.
Following analysis by experts from York Osteoarchaeology Ltd, it has been revealed that the skeleton was of a middle aged adult male, aged between 36 and 45 years. He was very tall for a Roman at 179cm and of muscular build. Lesions in his vertebrae suggest spinal stress, possibly through lifting heavy loads. His arms are well developed and, similar to other gladiators found in York, and bear all the hallmarks of repetitive sword training.
The most notable clues on the skeleton are the six blade injuries which, because there are no signs of healing, were delivered at death. These include a cut to the lower vertebrae of the back bone, a slash to a lower right rib and two slashing marks which penetrated the jaw, causing it to fracture. This shows evidence of a sword slicing through the jaw and then getting stuck, with the attacker then twisting the blade to get it free, breaking the jaw bone in two.
The skull had three blade injuries. One was a superficial wound to the top of the head, literally taking off a piece of his scalp, and a second which cut into the right side of the skull in two places. A third, probably the fatal blow, was a powerful stab wound to the back of the head. It appears that the perpetrator/s attacked this man from the right side. The wounds are typical of someone involved in armed combat, possibly gladiatorial combat, with numerous blows inflicted before he was finally killed.
The skeleton was not found in a position associated with organised Roman burial but with animal bones and broken pottery. It was found in an area which has for a long time puzzled archaeologists as it is in close proximity to the Roman fortress, on what was a very flat expanse of ground. Because it is also a key medieval site, the precinct of St Mary’s Abbey, excavation has been limited so the Museum Gardens remains one of the few untouched areas in the city that may have been large enough to house the amphitheatre.
The remains of the Roman are going on display at the Yorkshire Museum from this week.